Ethan Browne is back, healthy, and feeling good about himself and his role playing hockey for the Prince George Cougars.
The hyper-talented playmaking centre, who missed three weeks in an extended Christmas break when he went home to Sherwood Park, Alta., to sort out some personal issues, rejoined his teammates for their six-game tour of the WHL's East Division.
"It was good, I got readjusted and got better mentally," Browne said. "I'm a lot happier, happy to be back with the boys, obviously. I missed playing hockey.
"It's obviously tough getting back after being off three weeks but I rode the bike quite a bit when I was on the break and that helped quite a bit. I'm good to go."
Browne 19, played three of the six games during the Cougars' road swing into the East Division and picked up one assist in their 4-1 win in Saskatoon. They went 2-2-1-1 on the trip, earning six of a possible 12 points.
Lately Browne has been centring a line with Josh Maser and Filip Koffer, having returned to his usual spot at centre on the first power-play unit.
"When he's playing, he's such a big part of our lineup, especially our power play," said Cougars head coach/general manager Mark Lamb. "He's one of the most skilled guys and we have a hard time scoring goals. He's not so much a goal-scorer but he creates offence."
Separate concussions about a month apart sidelined Browne for three weeks in October-November and he was out for two weeks at the start of December. After putting up nine goals and 31 points in 2018-19, through 21 games this season he's been limited to three goals and six assists. He has a plus-one rating, the only player on the team since the start of the season who has been on the ice for Cougar goals at even strength more often than when they allow a goal.
Browne has developed his talent to dangle the puck and leave opponents fishing for it and the Cougars have missed his ability to thread passes to his teammates, especially when they have a manpower advantage
"I think I slow down the play and have lots of patience on the power play, so that makes it a lot easier," said Browne, whose Cougars host the Western Conference-leading Kamloops Blazers (30-11-2-1) Friday and Saturday at CN Centre.
The Cougars beat the Blazers 5-3 and 5-3 when they last visited Prince George, Nov. 22-23. Their only loss to them this season was by a 1-0 count, Nov. 15 in Kamloops.
"Obviously they're a skilled team and they work hard, but we're a skilled team and we work hard also," said Browne. "We also swept them the last time they came to our week, so we'll see if we can do it again."
The Cougars (12-24-3-4) are eight points out of a playoff spot. They trail the Seattle Thunderbirds by eight points for the second wild-card spot and are 11 points back of Vancouver for the first wild-card position. Of the Cougars' 25 games left in the season, four are against Seattle and four are against Vancouver.
"I think we can make a huge push for it for sure," said Browne. "I think we're a great team. It's all about winning games and playing our asses off."
Browne's return to the lineup coincided with centre Ilijah Colina missing the games in Prince Albert and Saskatoon while he dealt with an illness. Like Browne, Colina has had injury problems that have limited him to 31 games and 13 points this season. In the six games leading up to roadtrip Colina was on a point-per-game pace with three goals and three assists. He's been centring a line with newly-acquired left winger Jonny Hooker and Vladislav Mikhalchuk.
"Before he missed a few games I thought he was really taking a step in the right direction, making plays and turning into the Colina we thought he could be," said Lamb."
"He's had so many setbacks it's hard to get momentum. I think we've only had Browne and Colina in the lineup together three or four games."